Automation Anxiety

Tuesday 6 October, 2015
6:30 for a 7:00 pm start, finishing at 21:00
De Santis 11-13 Old Street (near junction with Goswell Road)
London EC1V 9HL
Still from Channel 4 series 'Humans'


The theme of automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and employment has come to the fore in the last year — highlighted by books such as Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s ‘The Second Machine Age’, the current BBC season on Intelligent Machines, the movies ‘Ex-Machina’ and Channel 4’s drama ‘Humans’ (illustrated), and high profile debates in fora such as Intelligence Squared — and has elicited much commentary.

The key developments driving the current debate are increases in computing power and connectivity, improvements in machine learning, access to data to learn from, and progress in sensors and actuators.

Concerns range from the threat to low paid and white collar jobs and the possibility of another shake-out of manufacturing jobs, to increasing economic disparities, the challenges of working with autonomous robots, the impact on the Chinese and other high growth economies, and the ethics and legal ramifications of interacting with robots. These commentators cite Moore’s Law as if it directly maps to the rate of societal change, and all change is described as ‘exponential’. The concepts around business and economics are rarely interrogated in a meaningful way; neither are the collective responses of workers, nor the infrastructural implications of developments considered; while social and legal ramifications tend to be skated over. Previous related hysteria – from automation in the 60s to robots in manufacturing in the 80s – are rarely reflected upon with respect to how they worked out in reality.

On the other hand many question the scale of developments — not least having reviewed the statistics on usage of robots and related productivity — questioning the scenarios envisioned and the naivety of understanding of the replication of human skills; some take on the mapping of technical to social change; others see robots as complementary to workers, observing that past periods of rapid automation still lead to increases in employment and quality of life, and argue that distinct humans qualities will guarantee future employment. In both camps – our speaker James Woudhuysen excepted – there is a general sense that technology drives society, and we’re just to be carried along. Explanations lack application of real theory or presentation of new paradigms. And few question how, when we are innovating and becoming more efficient, we seem so dystopic about our economic, work and lifestyle futures.

If you want to contribute to this debate, please join us for an informed high-level and frank discussion on the future of automation and employment, and how we can shape it.

(There is a cost to take part in this discussion, to cover the costs of food and refreshments.)


If you would like to take part please book via Eventbrite (where you can also add the event to your calendar and find a map locating the venue).
Eventbrite - BIG POTATOES discussion: Automation anxiety


The discussion will be introduced by James Woudhuysen, BIG POTATOES manifesto co-author and editor, visiting professor at London South Bank University, and an early writer and researcher on robots.

Discussions are attended by around 15 people, and a reading list can be found on the event page. Following the model of the previous discussion, we will be encouraging participants to write-up their conclusions; we will also be discussing in what forms we might collectively communicate our insights.

Following the model of the previous discussion, we will be encouraging participants to write-up their conclusions; we will also be discussing in what forms we might collectively communicate our insights.

19:00: Reading time and order food
19:10: Introduction
19:15: Introductions by participants
19:30: Introduction of themes by James Woudhuysen
19:40: Discussion of the themes
20:50: Planning around writing and other initiatives, and next events
21:00: Finish

Initial Readings


  • The jobs that AI can’t replace‘ Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee, BBC News, 13 September 2015: computer have created dramatic changes in the way that we work and the jobs that are available [but] there are still many categories in which humans perform better… some jobs will disappear, other jobs will be created and some existing jobs will become more valuable: [roles needing] creative endeavours, social interactions, and physical dexterity and mobility… But workers have to be strategic, and governments need to create a climate where entrepreneurs can flourish.
  • Will automation and the internet of things lead to mass unemployment?‘ Marc Ambasna-Jones, Guardian, 27 May 2015: [Cites The Future of Employment paper by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne] According to their methodology, the top 10 most likely jobs to be automated include telemarketers, insurance underwriters, watch repairers and accountants’ clerks; but high on the list are also legal secretaries, models, estate agents, cooks and dental technicians. It’s a surprising variety. But many feel the predicted rise of the robot is still just a theory… change is not always without its winners and losers and for the next generation at least, the nerds look hot favourites to inherit the earth.
  • Report Suggests Nearly Half of U.S. Jobs Are Vulnerable to Computerization‘ Aviva Hope Rutkin, MIT Technology Review, September 12, 2013: Oxford researchers say that 45 percent of America’s occupations will be automated within the next 20 years
  • Robots aren’t stealing our jobs, yet‘ Oliver Smith, The Memo, 15 September 2015: Over the last decade Britain’s workforce has adapted incredibly well by creating far more jobs that are at a low-risk of being replaced by robots and automation, than the number of jobs that have been lost from the process
  • Beyond Cheap Labor‘ Christina Larson, MIT Technology Review, September 16, 2014: Leading manufacturers in China combine the country’s historical labor advantages with expertise in automation, design, and manufacturing.
  • China struggles to engineer robot revolution‘ James Woudhuysen, China Outlook, July 13, 2013: Analysis of use and manufacturing of robots in China, and challenge presented by the shortage of expert roboticists
  • Human-Robot Collaboration Will Alter Manufacturing‘ Will Knight, MIT Technology Review, September 16, 2014: While the prospect of increased automation will inevitably cause worries about disappearing jobs, BMW’s Morris can’t foresee a day when robots will replace humans entirely on the factory floor… Workers seem comfortable with the idea of robotic colleagues, too
  • The economic myth of robotics and the robot job-ocalypse’ Tim Harford, Financial Times, August 19, 2015: In the past, new industries hired far more people than those they put out of business. But this is not true of many of today’s new industries [noted Time magazine in the 1960s] The worry now is that, with computers making jobs redundant faster than we can generate new ones… But the theory can be put to a very simple test: how fast is productivity growing?… [In reality] productivity has been disappointing… it is easy to blame robots for woes that should be laid at the door of others… in the wake of the great recession, managers have noted an ample supply of cheap human labour and have done without the machines for now.
  • Sentient robots? Not possible if you do the maths‘ New Scientist, 13 May 2014
  • If robots divide us, they will conquer’ Martin Wolf, Financial Times, February 4, 2014: [Review of ‘The Second Machine Age’ by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee] [Analysis of Robert Solow’s remark that ‘we see information technology everywhere except in the productivity statistics’] [There are many] reasons why people should be disturbed by [developments in automation]… Big challenges arise… if we are to ensure the new machines do not become our Frankenstein monsters.
  • Economic Growth in the Age of Diminishing Labor‘ Karl Smith, Cato Institute, November 2014: The most significant fact for economic growth in the 21st century is the sharp, now global, reduction in birth rates, population growth and hence labor force growth… Our most pressing issues are radically altered by it… What distinguishes robots from smart devices or simply technology in general is that they are designed to replace the role of a human operator… [Independence] exposes the robotic enterprise to a separate sort of risk… When the robot is presented with highly complex, interwoven problems… portions of its processing can become caught in infinite loops… For many devices—including the automobile—the robotic leap is not far from a technological standpoint. Liability concerns are the primary hurdle.
  • We shouldn’t fear robots – they’ll do our bidding‘ Paul Newman, Guardian, 5 March 2013: [Our] perspective of robotics is often polluted by easy-to-write scare stories adorned with easy-to-source pictures of science-fiction baddy-robots… The truth is there is a vast disparity between what we might believe or fear… and the reality of robotics-science… So why are everyday tasks so hard?… We can drop the droid talk and replace it with a proper sense of opportunity, benefit and maybe childlike wonder at what our creations will offer us.
  • IT’s not the future’ James Woudhuysen, spiked review of books, 11 July 2014: [Review of ‘The Second Machine Age’ by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee] The Second Machine Age sacrifices sense at the altar of technology
  • Invasion of the sexbots? Get a grip‘ James Woudhuysen, spiked, 23 September 2015: [L]arge parts of the media have an in-built tendency to see IT, ironically, in digital terms. IT is either pure black, and full of doom… the media’s new scare-story-come-love-object: sexbots… So: biology, human culture and the lifeless world of electrons all follow the same pattern… [But a] sexbot is a glorified vibrator… On the other hand, robots, when they are not seducing us, are supposed to be taking our jobs… [In the UK] the use of immigrants, women and older people by far outweighs the deployment of new machines [but people] still insist that robots and IT generally are about to change the workplace forever.

Blog posts

  • Agenda: 13 signs the fourth industrial revolution is almost here, World Economic Forum, by Stéphanie Thomson, Sep 11 2015: We spoke with 800 leading experts and executives from the ICT community to get their take on what our digital future looks like… 75% of those surveyed said 30% of corporate audits would be carried out by robots, and 86% said we would see the first robotic pharmacist in the US
  • Agenda: Top 10 emerging technologies of 2015, World Economic Forum, Mar 4 2015: [Includes section on ‘Next-generation robotics’]
  • Frank Diana’s Blog: Digital Transformation of Business and Society, September 10, 2015: [Report on KPMG Robotic Innovations event keynote by Gerd Leonhard entitled ‘The Digital Transformation of Business and Society: Challenges and Opportunities by 2020’] Anything that can be automated will be automated: truck drivers and pilots go away, as robots don’t need unions. There is just too much to be gained not to automate… Collectively, automation, robotics, intelligent assistants, and artificial intelligence will reframe business, commerce, culture, and society… In the second phase, the value lies in those things that cannot be automated… In the world of automation, experience becomes extremely valuable.
  • Off Message: Is your job safe in the second machine age?, John McDermott, Financial Times, Feb 10 2014: [Reviews data and methods in The Future of Employment paper by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne and ‘The Second Machine Age’ by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, and cites Tyler Cowen’s] It is common to hear that the answer to this disruption is “education”. Fine. But if what matters more than ever are social and creative intelligence skills, have we thought about how possible it is to teach and learn these faculties? Or the political will for any redistribution this might require?
  • The Exchange: Worry about robots or secular stagnation, Diane Coyle, Financial Times, Jan 20, 2015: [Labour] productivity is the result of investment in machinery – or “automation” as we’d be more inclined to call it now – as much as more effort or skill on the part of workers… machines still need some workers; humans are not made wholly redundant by automation… if your big worry about the economy is secular stagnation… you should be greatly cheered by the oft-cited estimate by Oxford University’s Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne that up to 47 per cent of US jobs and 35 per cent of current UK jobs could be automated away in the next decade… manufacturing jobs began to be automated away as early as the 1970s… The transition needed from labour in the next 10-20 years will probably be as large again… Then there is the income distribution question… These are just a few policy challenges.
  • BCS Future Tech: Moore’s law and the technological singularity, Chris Yapp, 7th Aug 2015: Life tends to be more complicated than visions around Moore’s Law would suggest. But language is a powerful tool for creating visions.

Reports and papers

  • Report: The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, Oxford Martin School, September 2013: The authors examine how susceptible jobs are to computerisation, by implementing a novel methodology to estimate the probability of computerisation for 702 detailed occupations, using a Gaussian process classifier. Based on these estimates, they examine expected impacts of future computerisation on US labour market outcomes, with the primary objective of analysing the number of jobs at risk and the relationship between an occupation’s probability of computerisation, wages and educational attainment.
  • Report: Creativity vs Robots, Hasan Bakhshi, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, Nesta, 22.04.15: This report explores future automation and creativity in the UK and US workforces. We find that creative jobs will be much more resistant to automation than most other jobs. [Discussed in Nesta blog post Creativity versus robots]
  • Autor, David H. 2015. ‘Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation.‘ Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(3): 3-30 [Cited in Tim Harford article]

Broadcasts and movies


  • Intelligent Machines, BBC News, September 2015
  • ZDNet report: AI, Automation, and Tech Jobs, 2015: There are some things that machines are simply better at doing than humans, but humans still have plenty going for them. Here’s a look at how the two are going to work in concert to deliver a more powerful future for IT, and the human race.



For further reading, listening and watching review bookmarks tagged ‘automation’ on Delicious


If you have questions about the event please contact Nico Macdonald